After struggling with hoarding for many years, Renae Winters reached out to Salem organizer Julie Starr Hook for help. Molly J. Smith / Statesman Journal
Renae Winters has a weakness for bargains. She loves shopping at dollar stores and gets giddy over back-to-school sales.
While recently browsing a school supply aisle, she gathered several items in her cart when a strange and unexpected thing happened. She put most of them back on the shelf, realizing she had no need or use for them. She doesn’t have school-age children.
Winters is a recovering hoarder, and she’s proud of it.
She invited me into her home early in the de-hoarding process. Her two-bedroom apartment was filled with stacks of stuff that created narrow passages through the living room, hallways, and bedrooms. The stench of cat urine was almost unbearable.
“This is a huge box of shame,” she told me that day.
But she put on a brave face, for herself and for others, and shared her story.
“I have the ability to help somebody else,” she said. “I don’t know if hoarding can be cured, but you can choose not to do it. The important thing is, even though everybody judges you, it isn’t your fault. It’s a medical problem.”
Hoarding is recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of the American Psychiatric Association. It affects up to 6 percent of the population, or as many as 19 million Americans and 240,000 Oregonians.
Producers of the TV show “Hoarders,” have come to the Salem area in the past, and I've requested interviews with clients, but they've always declined. Hoarding is a deep dark secret no one wants to share with their family, let alone with an audience.
Read more about local 'Hoarders' episode: <a href="http://www.statesmanjournal.com/story/news/2016/01/23/salem-experts-tapped-hoarders-episode/79137004/" target="_blank">Organizer, cleaning franchise pitch in</a>
Winters wanted to talk about it. She didn’t ask for us to change her name or shield her face in photographs and video.
Her case is unique in other ways, too.
A family member, in most hoarding cases, desperately seeks help from someone like Julie Starr Hook, who owns Five Starr Organizing and Design in Salem.
Winters did it all by herself. She called Hook and said she was ready for a change in her life.
“To have a hoarder say that, when not coerced, is highly unusual,” Hook said.
On a scale of 0 to 5, with 5 being a condemned house, Hook rated Winters’ apartment a 3. When she and assistant David Peters first entered the home, they wore disposable masks and put mentholated ointment under their noses because of the smell.
Hoarding is the excessive accumulation of items that others may view as worthless and the refusal to discard them, leading to problematic clutter that interferes with normal functioning. And it often involves large numbers of animals.
Winters has five cats — one of them recently had a litter — but she used to have many more.
Quantity sets a hoarder apart from people with normal collecting behaviors, and a hoarder saves random items and stores them haphazardly.We all have clutter in our lives, but it may be limited to a drawer, a closet, or a room.
As extreme cleaning specialist and “Hoarders” star Matt Paxton put it during a three-hour presentation in Salem in 2016: “We shame our hoarders because theirs is bigger and messier.”
From Paxton’s experience, there’s always an underlying cause for hoarding. For some, it’s tragedy and loss. For others, it’s trauma.
“They’re looking for happiness and self-worth in stuff,” he said.
Read more about hoarding: Hoarding 101, by Matt Paxton
Winters, 63, has been in and out of emotionally abusive relationships and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. She also grew up in a hoarding situation. Her mother was a hoarder.
In the beginning, Winters looked at the growing mounds of items she saved in her home as messy clutter. She knew where everything was. But then it got to the point where she couldn’t find anything, and it continued to get worse and worse.
It was compounded when her mother died and Winters inherited her hoard.
Room by room
The first room Hook and Peters tackled was the kitchen, which Winters hadn’t been able to fully use for years. The sink was inaccessible, filled with months-old dirty dishes that spilled onto the counters and the stove. The dishwasher didn’t work.
When they were finished, Winters couldn’t believe what a difference it made.
“It changed the way I eat, the way I feel about myself,” Winters said. “The first thing I did was made a very yummy strawberry cake. It was a huge win.”
Her bedroom was next. She hadn’t slept in her bed for who knows how long because it was buried. She couldn’t tell the piles of clean and dirty clothes apart. She slept on the couch in the living room, the one relatively clean space in the apartment.
Being able to move back into her bedroom and sleep in her bed was monumental. She soon felt more rested, which helped her physically and mentally.
With each room, she had a little more hope than before.
“I couldn’t imagine a future,” she told me, “other than just live here until I die.”
Next was the other bedroom, which Winters used as a craft studio and was jam-packed with shelves full of bins and containers. Some of it was organized by craft, but there was so much of everything, from fabric and paint to jewelry- and doll-making supplies.
Hoarders, she told me, are prone to buying shelves and storage containers.
“The magical thinking there is if I have the right organizers I will magically be able to clear up the clutter,” Winters said.
With each room, Hook and Peters did a pre-sort to help limit the decisions Winters had to make. If you’ve ever watched the TV show “Hoarders,” you’ve seen the agony clients go through when they’ve been asked to purge.
They helped Winters separate items into piles of what to throw away, what to donate, and what to sell. Hook urged her to “keep the things you need, use and that bring you joy.”
Winters grew uneasy when asked how she would use a random item, and Hook always seemed to know just when to push and when to back off.
“It’s scary when you already tend to have high anxiety,” Winters said. “But it’s not nearly as traumatic as I thought it would be.”
Things even a hoarder should keep
Getting rid of a couple of items was more difficult than others, especially when it came to gifts from family members and friends. A small stuffed Puss 'N Boots given to her by her daughter, for example, and a plastic owl figure from a friend. She kept both.
“It’s not logical, but it feels like I would be betraying them,” she said.
Like many hoarders, though, the apartment wasn’t the only place where Winters’ maintained a hoard. She had a storage unit in town, and it was stacked high with stuff, too.
Hook and Peters helped her sort through the items there and eventually removed everything so she no longer needed the space. It saved her $70 a month, but the downside was that everything she decided to keep was moved into her apartment.
Winters was almost apologetic when I recently returned for a visit — a couple of months since my last one — worried that I might think it still looks like a hoarder’s house and bothered by the added clutter.
“When you’re a hoarder, you’re clutter blind,” she said. “The only way you can stand it is to not see it.
“But I see the clutter now. It really, really bugs me.”
She has had a half-dozen visits so far with Hook, and they plan monthly or quarterly follow-up sessions to hold her accountable. She admitted she needs that.
“The key, though, is she’s not accumulating, which is huge,” Hook said.
Winters finds herself justifying every purchase she makes, like the close-call with the bargain school supplies.
She keeps a journal and writes a blog, openly sharing her journey to becoming a recovering hoarder and hoping to offer someone else hope.
“I really believe she is done hoarding,” Hook said. “Now she has to decide what she wants to do with her life.”
“Forward This” appears Wednesdays and Sundays and highlights the people, places and organizations of the Mid-Willamette Valley. Contact Capi Lynn at clynn@StatesmanJournal.com or 503-399-6710, or follow her the rest of the week on Twitter @CapiLynn and Facebook @CapiLynnSJ.